This week the Criterion Collection brings us the spiritual successor to Powell and Pressburger’s phenomenal The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). An English translation of a French opera, based on the self-mythologizing of a German writer (E.T.A. Hoffmann), Tales combines the beauty of The Red Shoes ballet, with a frankly insane anthology of stories. Pat probably forgets that he didn’t really like The Red Shoes when we watched it, but still manages to think this is a bit flat compared to it. I think he’s just scared of Spalanzani’s eyebrows.
The Criterion Collection sure loves Shakespeare. Turns out so does Akira Kurosawa, though sometimes by accident? Throne of Blood is rather objectively the best adaptation of MacBeth that exists. Soon we’ll watch The Bad Sleep Well which could be Hamlet but it might be better to not think of it as Hamlet — we’ll get into that in a few weeks.
This week in the middle is Ran, which Kurosawa wrote, then someone pointed out that it sounded a lot like King Lear, so Kurosawa rewrote it to lean into the comparison.
If The 400 Blows was “very French”, and it is considered to be, Francois Truffaut’s follow up was meant to be “very American” and really it’s the most American of things: the mashup. It’s a New Wave crime comedy based on a Noir novel and the tonal shifts! Oh boy, the tonal shifts! That is to say it is not “American” in the same way that The 400 Blows is “French”. It’s a bunch of American stereotypical elements rolled into one silly film — a “grab bag” as Truffaut himself describes it.
On this week’s Lost in Criterion I present a nascent Marxist reading of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket -- if only as a counter to Pat’s sexual deviancy reading -- and come so close as I talk it out but still so far. I realized after the recording that if there is a valid Marxist interpretation of Pickpocket I had it a bit backwards: Michel steals excess value from people who (presumably) produce it, but sits on it, not using it to better society nor even to better himself. He’s the embodiment of the thieving Boss. Anyway, the film serves as a pickpocketing procedural which is fun, and is also “inspired” by Crime and Punishment in such a way that it almost feels like a parody of Dostoevsky. It’s pretty great.
Our final film in the Rebel Samurai boxset is also the craziest, a parody of samurai films from the preceding twenty years or more, 1968’s Kill! directed by Kihachi Okamoto. Donovan H. finishes us out as well, though he’ll be back soon enough I’m sure.
Movie three in the Rebel Samurai boxset is Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy, the 1965 Le Carre-ian Cold War espionage film that happens to take place in the political turmoil of the early part of the 17th century in Japan. Also the main character is a traditional Japanese folk hero who the audience should know about but that’s not at all important until it is very, very, incredibly very important to understand the plot in the last ten minutes of the movie. We talk cold war politics, historical analogues, and secret knowledge on this week’s Lost in Criterion.
Number two in the Rebel Samurai boxset is Hideo Gosha’s 1965 Sword of the Beast, also known as — as Pat delightfully points out — Samurai Gold Seekers. Donovan H. joins us again as we talk more about Samurai mythos deconstruction and economic systems of the past! Hurray!
We kick off the Rebel Samurai boxset this week with Masaki Kobayashi's aptly named Samurai Rebellion. Toshiro Mifune stars in a film that plays as a companion piece to Kobayashi's great Harakiri that we talked about back in July. Donovan Hill joins us this episode and for the rest of the boxset, and it's always a joy to have him.
We get another great Japanese ghost story and another loose Guy de Maupassant adaptation this week with Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. Like a lot of films made in the years after World War II in Japan it is decidedly anti-war. That already gives it a lot of points in our book, but it's also brilliant, beautiful, melancholy, and just downright among the greatest films ever made period.
This week Pat puts his Anthropology degree to use to take issue with Jean-Luc Godard's sociology practices. Masculin Feminin is a sprawling look at the young people of Paris just before the 1965 re-election of Charles de Gaulle, a re-election that would lead to the events of May 1968 we've discussed previously with Godard's (superior) Tout va Bien. Unfortunately, Godard doesn't give the respect to his female stars that he wants to say the entire generation deserve.
Mike Leigh's Naked is a bit of a Thatcher-era take on Boudu Saved from Drowning and a bit of an end times prophecy. It's also a pretty off-putting movie, what with all the rapes.
Partway into the episode I present a reading of it as an adaptation of the Odyssey, with David Thewlis's Johnny as Odysseus. While I think that's a fair reading even though there's no cyclops, I only later realized that it's Claire Skinner's Sandra who returns from overseas to kick a bunch of interlopers out of her home, so maybe she's a background Odysseus instead. In any case the films got a lot to say about transience and the lives of people in the bottom rungs of capitalism. I love it, I'm just not sure I could stand to watch it again.
It was only a matter of time before we found a Jean-Pierre Melville film I actually like. We do make one big mistake in this weeks episode though. Despite being a film with Samourai literally in the title we did not invite Donovan Hill back to join us for this French gangster classic. I publicly apologize to him and you listeners for that oversight. He'd have hated it, and those are some of the best episodes.
Le Samourai starts with a fake quote about bushido and is philosophically inconsistent with everything we've learned about bushido from the Japanese films Melville certainly watched and doesn't seem to quite grasp. Still brilliant, though.
We get one of our earliest Jean Renoir films this week, and it's a treat. Noted for it's encapsulation of Paris between the wars, Boudu Saved from Drowning is a critique of Bourgeois values via rejection. It's also noted for essentially allowing star Michel Simon to play his no-holds-barred libertarian and libertine self. Pat and I have problems with rejecting Bourgeois sensibilities for right wing individualism, but maybe we just have problems with spitting in books.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) may be our favorite Nicholas Roeg film, though the bar has been set pretty dang low. Even without David Bowie's performance -- and is he playing any more of a character than "David Bowie" ever was? -- this film deserves its cult status. Still as science fiction it fails for us on two major points:
1) The inventions don't seem that mind-blowing/paradigm shifting for 1976.
2) The departures from the source material eliminate the main anti-American militarism and anti-Nuclear weapons themes and replace them with...we're not entirely sure what this movie wants to say. Something about the alienation of pure genius?
Of course those are themes that show up a lot in science fiction, so I'll allow that Roeg may have been avoiding a cliche. But that doesn't forgive point one, which is a failure of imagination in production design (though it is probably the only aspect of this film that fails to be imaginative enough).
There's a lot about Nicholas Roeg's 1980 psychological thriller Bad Timing that is just bad: Art Garfunkel's staring turn, Harvey Keitel's inconsistent accent, the fact that the film spends 122 minutes suggesting that having sex with an unconscious (and dying) woman isn't rape, etc.
Still the story format itself is interesting -- even if, as one reviewer suggests, there would barely be a story if it were actually told chronologically -- the ambiguity of the nature of the flashbacks is mostly interesting, and Theresa Russell is brilliant, even if she spends most of the film convulsing.
We'll be exploring a string of samurai deconstruction films in just a few months as we tackle the Rebel Samurai boxset. Though virtually every Jidaigeki samurai film we've seen so far is a deconstruction of the genre, the deconstructionists hit hard in the 60s as young men disillusioned by the war became the nation's primary voices in film.
This week we have Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi's hard-hitting 1962 entry in the genre (and we'll see more from him in the coming boxset). While the title is more properly Seppuku in Japanese, the "vulgar" term harakiri better sums up the films attitude toward the traditional practice. Donovan Hill joins us, as he often does for these sorts of films, and we're better off for it, though as is often the case he leads us on a longer than normal conversation.
Based on Janet Frame's trio of autobiographies (and taking its name from the middle one), Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table from 1990 is a lovingly crafted look at the life of the Kiwi author. Frame was lucky to escape the hand she'd been dealt as a woman who did not fit the mold many men in her life expected her to, particularly the moment she was scheduled for a lobotomy by winning a national book prize. Horrific. And utterly normal, it turns out.
For all the jokes about doing this until either we or the Criterion Collection itself dies I don't know that we ever realistically thought we'd be Lost in Criterion for this long. I suppose we may as well stick it out.
Wes Anderson is a favorite of the Collection and we will eventually see all of his films as part of it. He's also a favorite (or decidedly not) of many of our friends who we've invited on this week's episode to discuss his 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Long time friends Donovan Hill and Stephen Goldmeier return, as well as normally only Christmastime guests Andrew Tobias and Ben Jones-White. Our dear friend and musician Jonathan Hape sits in as well, and helps us run a slightly better set up for multi-guests in one room, though the recording does have some issues, principally an echo on multiple tracks that I wasn't able to track down. Let's pretend I added it on purpose to make the episode more whimsical.
We had a good run with Seijun Suzuki, but like most heroes, eventually you find something you have to step back from.
While much of the message of Story of the Prostitute is similar to and on par with the anti-militarism, anti-toxic masculinity themes of his great Fighting Elegy, the framing element here leaves quite a bit to be desired about the true nature of Japan's history with so called "Comfort Women". Historically these women were (mostly) kidnapped and forced into prostitution for the army, but in focusing his themes against militarism Seijun allows for the cultural myth that the Comfort Women were all willing, even patriotic, volunteers to settle in. Still by no means does he present their lives as pleasant or good, so...what do we do with a very progressive message that is not as progressive as it could, and should, be.
In any case this is the most ideologically complex of Seijun's films that we've seen, and it's the last in the collection at this time, which means we've got at least 646 episodes before we see him again.
We love Seijun Suzuki here at Lost in Criterion, and sadly we only have two more of his films to watch before we're all out of them. Well, unless the Criterion adds more before we're done. There's certainly an incredibly good chance of that.
We finish with two of the earliest of his that we've seen (though Youth of the Beast was earlier than either). This week it's Gates of Flesh a story of post-war desperation.